Living And Fashion
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The evolutionary reasons for our pets’ most revolting habits

From pooing in strangers’ gardens to barking incessantly, even the most precious pets can be annoying, embarrassing, or just plain revolting. Where did these behaviours come from?

In a leafy suburban corner of south-east London, a war is brewing.

It started in May this year, when one of my neighbours took a sudden interest in the little wilderness at the front of his house. Over the next three weeks, he could regularly be seen labouring away, hacking out weeds, smoothing the soil, and adding compost. Then one day, it was time to add the finishing touch – a soft carpet of pristine turf. The result was as neat and carefully manicured as the green slopes around Windsor Castle. I remember wondering what the local cats would make of it.

The first night brought a swift, decisive answer. Once as flat as a snooker table, the next day the lawn’s surface was ridged and twisted, as though the turf rolls were tectonic plates that had been pushed against each other. It was scattered with little brown curls of cat poo.

Undeterred, my neighbour put the garden back together and stayed up every night for a week, to ward off any more marauding felines. But it happened again – and again, and again. As I type, his fortifications have escalated to almost ludicrous proportions. The lawn’s entire surface is now sheathed in protective netting, and there are little pots of vinegar at each corner, which cats supposedly detest. The final insurance is an ultrasonic cat scarer, which blasts out unpleasant sounds in a range that they’re particularly sensitive to. So far, the defences are holding up – but who knows how this battle could end. (I might suggest a moat.)

As it happens, gangs of defecating cats look set to become a lot more common. In the UK, the most fashionable pets are now collectively almost a third as populous as humans, with an estimated 10.1 million dogs, 10.9 million cats and one million rabbits. Likewise, worldwide pet ownership is booming – in Japan, businesses have embraced the new trend by launching dog clothing lines and cat hotels, leading some commentators to suggest they’re replacing children. In the US, there are almost 78 million dogs and 58 million cats.

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